The Dining Room as Parable

To a visitor who has never eaten regularly at one, a kibbutz dining room might look like a glorified (or even unglorified) cafeteria: the stainless-steel smorgasbord of salads and meats and breads, the long table-clothed tables and conversation-filled open room, the noisy conveyor-belt dish-washing machine. Echoes of high school perhaps, with more gossip and fewer food fights.
But for a longtime kibbutznik (and even a nostalgia-drunk volunteer like myself), the dining room is so much more. It’s the heart and soul of the kibbutz. It’s the centre of activity. It’s the thrice a day (sometimes more) gathering place. It’s as much a symbol as a setting. It is, as the title of a recent exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv suggests, a parable. So it’s little wonder that the dining room has proved the fascinated focus for many artists, like the photographers in the Eretz Israel show, or Avraham Eilat (who uploaded a time-lapse film sequence of the dining room at Kibbutz Shamir, with the members gathering around the TV for news of a terrorist attack by the Red Brigade), and others. 
Over the past two years, I also “read” the dining rooms at the different kibbutzim I visited as parables. I tried to discern the state of their social and community life from the state of their dining room. At Kibbutz Hanita, my host took me to the dining room explicitly to show me how life there had declined since privatization: there was a cash register, half the room was closed off, the remaining side was half-empty and occupied mostly with retirement-age kibbutzniks, and he admitted that since most of his friends had left the kibbtuz, he rarely ate there himself.
Kibbutz Lotan, by contrast, had a small but lively dining room, still communal, still free, and packed shoulder to shoulder, with challa and wine on the table, for Shabbat dinner. I watched two male friends hug warmly as they met near the kitchen. The heart of this dining room was still beating strongly. It felt the same at Kibbutz Samar, although the dress-code was more hippie-chic, and its kitchen is probably unique in the entire country for being open and unlocked at all hours of the day or the night: anyone can drop by for a snack at the anarchist dining room. 
Kibbutz Ketura was a bit more complex. It had a more spacious dining room, but the social geography of the space was carefully sub-divided, likely unconsciously, perhaps because of the many different groups who coalesce at the kibbutz: international volunteers sat at one table, students at the Arava Institute at another (and Mulsim students tended to cluster together amongst themselves), several tables were reserved for one of the many tour groups (in this case, young Swedes) who come through, and there was food station reserved for guests of the hotel—we got a slightly choice of food fixings, because we were paying for our meals.
Kibbutz Urim’s dining room was lightly attended for breakfast, but during our meal, our host ran into his university-aged son, who is living in a student apartment on the kibbutz, and they had coffee together—a nice moment. Urim is struggling to stay communal and considering different statuses for different members, to give some flexibility and freedom without fully embracing privatization: the dining room seemed to mirror that trend.
Kibbutz Revadim was the most depressing. Jerry and I were the only people eating in its huge dining room, because we were staying at the guest house. The dining room’s kitchen were privatized, and only used for catering functions and guest-house breakfasts. A panorama of photographs outside the entrance showed the kibbutz’s expansion, from an aerial view, over 60 years, with the dining room at its hub. But now that hub is empty of its original purpose.
Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek has a huge L-shaped dining room, usually busy, with stacks of high-chairs and newspapers to be picked up outside. It remains the proud centre of this bastion of the kibbutz movement. Kibbutz 
Kibbutz Shamir’s dining hall was much like I remembered it, with its sun-filled vertical windows and huge tapestry, although the kitchen itself has been renovated and cash registers added to pay for the (heavily subsidized) meals. It was open for breakfast and lunch and two dinners per week. Workers from the factory, in their blue overalls, still used it, although because agriculture plays a smaller role, with far fewer workers, in the kibbutz economy, I didn’t see the lines of muddy field-hands in their sun-hats and work-shirts, a cigarette tucked behind their ears, trundle in for a meal like I used to do. We were only there four days, but it wasn’t long before we were chatting to and nodding at friends and acquaintances that we had met—the social glue of eating in the same place was starting to set.


Day Nine: Ketura and Lotan

Alas, our last day in the intellectually fertile mindscape of the Arava Valley. We wrapped up interviews on Kibbutz Lotan with Mark Naveh, the mazkir (ie, kibbutz secretary), about the challenges of his evolving community, and Mike Kaplin, one of the brains behind the creative ecology centre. Afterwards, we walked down the stairs of a bomb shelter—and into a student seminar about peace and social justice.
We returned to Ketura, where I had one of those only-in-Israel conversations with a Palestinian student in the swimming pool of the kibbutz. He described his intellectual aspirations and the frustrations of growing up and trying to do business as a Palestinian in East Jerusalem.
Finally, we sat in on several student presentations  about their research at the Institute before we had to hop into the car and drive across the Negev Desert, past tank-training facilities and down into the Ramon Crater (where we nearly ran out of gas) before finally pulling into Kibbutz Urim. We were both intellectually and physically drained. We had seen visions of different ways of living together in the desert and it will take days, probably longer, to make sense of all that we learned there.